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Hildegard von Bingen
Northside (

cd cover The music on Garmarna's latest CD is derived from a project that dates back to 1996, when the genius upstarts of the Swedish scene were offered the opportunity to compose new musical backing for the mystic song texts of the abbess Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179). Much of Hildegard von Bingen hinges on the simply incredible voice of Emma Hardelin, and it is her warm, full voice that is arrayed against a barrage of electronics. Hardelin sounds at home with these Latin texts, and her phrasing is exceptional.

The most consistent rhythmic elements are aligned with club-influenced drum 'n' bass, and occasionally some low-rider funk. Whenever a violin, guitar, or hurdy-gurdy is utilized, the instruments provide a momentary hot flash next to the cool beats. This is really both a blessing and a curse. For the first time listening to a Garmarna record, I don't feel as if I'm hearing a band; everything sounds so programmed.

Garmarna thus accomplish mixed, but interesting results as they join ancient and modern music. For "Unde Quocompque (Whence, Wherever)," Garmarna sound recognizably like themselves as the band swells up under a long, dance-club introduction; this then gives way to Hardelin's spare singing, and ends with a return to beat heaven. But the von Bingen passage seems out of place, dropped into the middle of an entirely different musical statement. "Salvatoris (Savior)" is a much better effort, and rather jarring. Here, the rhythm splutters and starts behind Hardelin, until her voice itself is filtered beyond recognition, similarly spluttering and bubbling before regaining its human richness for the remainder of the disc. The effect is absolutely shocking, but necessarily so: you're aware of the risks Garmarna are taking with this material, in order for it to be heard in a new light.

This is, on the whole, a beautiful record, and it is often emotionally soothing amidst its modern dance sounds. While the treatment is brave, I would have liked Garmarna to have been even bolder: the fusion of styles could be more complete. And so it is no surprise, perhaps, that the CD ends with two tracks that show the split personality of the project: one, a band instrumental, and the other a pure, direct solo singing of "Kyrie Eleison" by Hardelin. Deus ex machina, indeed! - Lee Blackstone

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